Alberta's information and privacy commissioner has launched an investigation into the use of a covert email by Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ted Morton and the shredding of documents after he left office, which were first revealed Thursday by CBC News.
"He thinks that these are really quite serious allegations that have been made in the story so as a result of that we've opened an investigation file. We will be looking into the allegations," said Wayne Wood, a spokesman for Commissioner Frank Work.
Emails leaked to CBC News show Morton used the name Frederick Lee — his actual first and middle names — as an official government email address while he was minister of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD).
The use of this address would make it difficult for anyone to obtain emails about government business through a freedom of information request.
The news investigation also unearthed an April 2011 email from Morton's former executive assistant which stated that staff shredded all documents when Morton resigned from cabinet.
Work is concerned that the issues raised by the CBC News report might be more widespread.
"Depending on the outcome of our first investigation, he has indicated that there may be further investigations coming," Wood said.
Privacy commission investigations typically take a couple of months, but Work wants to have this probe wrapped up within weeks.
Morton answered questions about the documents for the first time Thursday after declining several requests for interviews from CBC News last week.
He told reporters in Edmonton it is common practice for provincial and federal cabinet ministers to have more than one email because the main one is known by the public.
"If we just used the single email, there'd be four or five hundred emails a day," he said. "I don't think you or the taxpayers would want the premier or cabinet ministers sorting through those types of emails."
As for the other allegations, Morton said documents deemed to be transitional are usually shredded when a minister leaves office.
Remaining documents considered to be part of the public record are then sent to archives, but Morton couldn't say whether that took place after he left office.
"I didn't do any of this," he said. "I didn't even know any of this was subject to FOIPP [Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy]. If there was any issue here, I think my communications director would have alerted me to that."
Stelmach also has second email
Premier Ed Stelmach said, like Morton, he has a secondary email account to communicate with staff, but said any messages are subject to the province's freedom of information policies.
"If it's not, then the next premier can ask the commissioner to review the policy to make sure that all emails are fully transparent with the Alberta public," Stelmach said.
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith said the revelations about Morton's practices trouble her as she believes all government correspondence belongs to the people of Alberta.
"I think it's probably ok to have a private email account so you can communicate with your kids, or your wife, but when you're communicating with other government department officials, that needs to come from an official email account," she said.
"And that email account needs to be able to be assessed through a freedom of information request."
Smith wants to change freedom of information rules so that government ministers need to justify why documents should not be publicly released, instead of asking the public to make a case. .
One of Morton's competitors for the Tory leadership also wanted more answers. Rick Orman asked whether Morton was trying to hide from freedom of information requests by using the other email account.
"People of Alberta are not stupid and he's taking us for fools," Orman said.
"He's a cabinet minister. He was communicating with his department. This is not a communication with his next door neighbour about his dog getting out. This is a major issue."
Orman is also concerned about what was said in one of the Frederick Lee emails where staff are directed to revise legislation relating to potential land rights of Métis people.